An academic development of Marxism. Critical theory was developed in Germany and then America in the 1930s by the ‘Frankfurt School’. It stressed cultural and intellectual developments in place of the more traditional Marxist concern with the economy and with class.
Critical theory (also capitalized as “Critical Theory” to distinguish the school of thought from a theory that is in some way “critical”) is an approach to social philosophy that focuses on reflective assessment and critique of society and culture in order to reveal and challenge power structures. With origins in sociology and literary criticism, it argues that social problems are influenced and created more by societal structures and cultural assumptions than by individual and psychological factors. Maintaining that ideology is the principal obstacle to human liberation, critical theory was established as a school of thought primarily by the Frankfurt School theoreticians Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, and Max Horkheimer. Horkheimer described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.”
In sociology and political philosophy, “Critical Theory” means the Western-Marxist philosophy of the Frankfurt School, developed in Germany in the 1930s and drawing on the ideas of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Though a “critical theory” or a “critical social theory” may have similar elements of thought, capitalizing Critical Theory as if it were a proper noun stresses the intellectual lineage specific to the Frankfurt School.
Modern critical theory has also been influenced by György Lukács and Antonio Gramsci, as well as second-generation Frankfurt School scholars, notably Jürgen Habermas. In Habermas’s work, critical theory transcended its theoretical roots in German idealism and progressed closer to American pragmatism. Concern for social “base and superstructure” is one of the remaining Marxist philosophical concepts in much contemporary critical theory.:5–8
Postmodern critical theory analyzes the fragmentation of cultural identities in order to challenge modernist-era constructs such as metanarratives, rationality, and universal truths, while politicizing social problems “by situating them in historical and cultural contexts, to implicate themselves in the process of collecting and analyzing data, and to relativize their findings.”
Max Horkheimer first defined critical theory (German: Kritische Theorie) in his 1937 essay “Traditional and Critical Theory”, as a social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole, in contrast to traditional theory oriented only toward understanding or explaining it. Wanting to distinguish critical theory as a radical, emancipatory form of Marxist philosophy, Horkheimer critiqued both the model of science put forward by logical positivism, and what he and his colleagues saw as the covert positivism and authoritarianism of orthodox Marxism and Communism. He described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” Critical theory involves a normative dimension, either by criticizing society in terms of some general theory of values or norms (oughts), or by criticizing society in terms of its own espoused values (i.e. immanent critique).
The core concepts of critical theory are that it should:
- be directed at the totality of society in its historical specificity (i.e. how it came to be configured at a specific point in time)
- improve understanding of society by integrating all the major social sciences, including geography, economics, sociology, history, political science, anthropology, and psychology
Kant and Marx
This version of “critical” theory derives from the use of the term critique by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason and from Marx, on the premise that Das Kapital is a “critique of political economy”.
In Kant’s transcendental idealism, critique means examining and establishing the limits of the validity of a faculty, type, or body of knowledge, especially by accounting for the limitations of that knowledge system’s fundamental, irreducible concepts.
Kant’s notion of critique has been associated with the overturning of false, unprovable, or dogmatic philosophical, social, and political beliefs. His critique of reason involved the critique of dogmatic theological and metaphysical ideas and was intertwined with the enhancement of ethical autonomy and the Enlightenment critique of superstition and irrational authority. Ignored by many in “critical realist” circles is that Kant’s immediate impetus for writing Critique of Pure Reason was to address problems raised by David Hume’s skeptical empiricism which, in attacking metaphysics, employed reason and logic to argue against the knowability of the world and common notions of causation. Kant, by contrast, pushed the employment of a priori metaphysical claims as requisite, for if anything is to be said to be knowable, it would have to be established upon abstractions distinct from perceivable phenomena.
Marx explicitly developed the notion of critique into the critique of ideology, linking it with the practice of social revolution, as stated in the 11th section of his Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Adorno and Horkheimer
One of the distinguishing characteristics of critical theory, as Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer elaborated in their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), is an ambivalence about the ultimate source or foundation of social domination, an ambivalence that gave rise to the “pessimism” of the new critical theory about the possibility of human emancipation and freedom. This ambivalence was rooted in the historical circumstances in which the work was originally produced, particularly the rise of Nazism, state capitalism, and culture industry as entirely new forms of social domination that could not be adequately explained in the terms of traditional Marxist sociology.
For Adorno and Horkheimer, state intervention in the economy had effectively abolished the traditional tension between Marxism’s “relations of production” and “material productive forces” of society. The market (as an “unconscious” mechanism for the distribution of goods) had been replaced by centralized planning.
Contrary to Marx’s prediction in the Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, this shift did not lead to “an era of social revolution” but to fascism and totalitarianism. As such, critical theory was left, in Habermas’s words, without “anything in reserve to which it might appeal, and when the forces of production enter into a baneful symbiosis with the relations of production that they were supposed to blow wide open, there is no longer any dynamism upon which critique could base its hope.” For Adorno and Horkheimer, this posed the problem of how to account for the apparent persistence of domination in the absence of the very contradiction that, according to traditional critical theory, was the source of domination itself.
In the 1960s, Habermas, a proponent of critical social theory, raised the epistemological discussion to a new level in his Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), by identifying critical knowledge as based on principles that differentiated it either from the natural sciences or the humanities, through its orientation to self-reflection and emancipation. Although unsatisfied with Adorno and Horkheimer’s thought in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Habermas shares the view that, in the form of instrumental rationality, the era of modernity marks a move away from the liberation of enlightenment and toward a new form of enslavement.:6 In Habermas’s work, critical theory transcended its theoretical roots in German idealism, and progressed closer to American pragmatism.
Habermas’s ideas about the relationship between modernity and rationalization are in this sense strongly influenced by Max Weber. He further dissolved the elements of critical theory derived from Hegelian German idealism, though his epistemology remains broadly Marxist. Perhaps his two most influential ideas are the concepts of the public sphere and communicative action, the latter arriving partly as a reaction to new post-structural or so-called “postmodern” challenges to the discourse of modernity. Habermas engaged in regular correspondence with Richard Rorty, and a strong sense of philosophical pragmatism may be felt in his thought, which frequently traverses the boundaries between sociology and philosophy.
Focusing on language, symbolism, communication, and social construction, critical theory has been applied in the social sciences as a critique of social construction and postmodern society.
While modernist critical theory (as described above) concerns itself with “forms of authority and injustice that accompanied the evolution of industrial and corporate capitalism as a political-economic system”, postmodern critical theory politicizes social problems “by situating them in historical and cultural contexts, to implicate themselves in the process of collecting and analyzing data, and to relativize their findings.” Meaning itself is seen as unstable due to social structures’ rapid transformation. As a result, research focuses on local manifestations rather than broad generalizations.
Postmodern critical research is also characterized by the crisis of representation, which rejects the idea that a researcher’s work is an “objective depiction of a stable other.” Instead, many postmodern scholars have adopted “alternatives that encourage reflection about the ‘politics and poetics’ of their work. In these accounts, the embodied, collaborative, dialogic, and improvisational aspects of qualitative research are clarified.”
The term critical theory is often appropriated when an author works in sociological terms, yet attacks the social or human sciences, thus attempting to remain “outside” those frames of inquiry. Michel Foucault has been described as one such author. Jean Baudrillard has also been described as a critical theorist to the extent that he was an unconventional and critical sociologist; this appropriation is similarly casual, holding little or no relation to the Frankfurt School. In contrast, Habermas is one of the key critics of postmodernism.
From the 1960s and 1970s onward, language, symbolism, text, and meaning came to be seen as the theoretical foundation for the humanities, through the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure, George Herbert Mead, Noam Chomsky, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and other thinkers in linguistic and analytic philosophy, structural linguistics, symbolic interactionism, hermeneutics, semiology, linguistically oriented psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan, Alfred Lorenzer), and deconstruction.
When, in the 1970s and 1980s, Habermas redefined critical social theory as a study of communication, with communicative competence and communicative rationality on the one hand, and distorted communication on the other, the two versions of critical theory began to overlap to a much greater degree than before.
Critical theorists have widely credited Paulo Freire for the first applications of critical theory to education/pedagogy, considering his best-known work to be Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a seminal text in what is now known as the philosophy and social movement of critical pedagogy. Dedicated to the oppressed and based on his own experience helping Brazilian adults learn to read and write, Freire includes a detailed Marxist class analysis in his exploration of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. In the book, he calls traditional pedagogy the “banking model of education”, because it treats the student as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge. He argues that pedagogy should instead treat the learner as a co-creator of knowledge.
In contrast to the banking model, the teacher in the critical-theory model is not the dispenser of all knowledge, but a participant who learns with and from the students—in conversation with them, even as they learn from the teacher. The goal is to liberate the learner from an oppressive construct of teacher versus student, a dichotomy analogous to colonizer and colonized. It is not enough for the student to analyze societal power structures and hierarchies, to merely recognize imbalance and inequity; critical theory pedagogy must also empower the learner to reflect and act on that reflection to challenge an oppressive status quo.
While critical theorists have often been called Marxist intellectuals, their tendency to denounce some Marxist concepts and to combine Marxian analysis with other sociological and philosophical traditions has resulted in accusations of revisionism by classical, orthodox, and analytical Marxists, and by Marxist–Leninist philosophers. Martin Jay has said that the first generation of critical theory is best understood not as promoting a specific philosophical agenda or ideology, but as “a gadfly of other systems.”
Critical theory has been criticized for not offering any clear road map to political action (praxis), often explicitly repudiating any solutions (as with Marcuse’s “Great Refusal”, which promoted abstaining from engaging in active political change).
A primary criticism of the theory is that it is anti-scientific, both for its lack of the use of the scientific method, and for its overt criticism of science as a tool used for oppression of marginalized groups of people.
- Bohman, James (2019), “Critical Theory”, in Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 27 November 2020
- Geuss, R. The Idea of a Critical Theory Archived 12 February 2020 at the Wayback Machine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ch. 4.
- (Horkheimer 1982, 244)
- Outhwaite, William.  2009. Habermas: Key Contemporary Thinkers (2nd ed.). ISBN 978-0-7456-4328-1.
- Lindlof, Thomas R.; Taylor, Bryan C. (2002). Qualitative Communication Research Methods. SAGE. p. 49. ISBN 9780761924944.
forms of authority and injustice that accompanied the evolution of industrial and corporate capitalism as a political-economic system.
- Horkheimer 1982, p. 244.
- Bohman, James (1 January 2016). Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 ed.). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Archivedfrom the original on 13 June 2019. Retrieved 21 December 2016.
- “Theses on Feuerbach”. §XI. Marxists Internet Archive. Archived from the original on 16 April 2015. Retrieved 11 April 2015.
- Adorno, Theodor W., and Max Horkheimer.  2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment, translated by E. Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press. p. 242.
- Habermas, Jürgen. 1987. “The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment: Horkheimer and Adorno.” In The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, translated by F. Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. p. 116: “Critical Theory was initially developed in Horkheimer’s circle to think through political disappointments at the absence of revolution in the West, the development of Stalinism in Soviet Russia, and the victory of fascism in Germany. It was supposed to explain mistaken Marxist prognoses, but without breaking Marxist intentions.”
- Dubiel, Helmut. 1985. Theory and Politics: Studies in the Development of Critical Theory, translated by B. Gregg. Cambridge, MA.
- Dialectic of Enlightenment. p. 38: “[G]one are the objective laws of the market which ruled in the actions of the entrepreneurs and tended toward catastrophe. Instead the conscious decision of the managing directors executes as results (which are more obligatory than the blindest price-mechanisms) the old law of value and hence the destiny of capitalism.”
- “The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment,” p. 118.
- Katsiaficas, George N., Robert George Kirkpatrick, and Mary Lou Emery. 1987. Introduction to Critical Sociology. Irvington Publishers. p. 26.
- Laurie, Timothy, Hannah Stark, and Briohny Walker. 2019. “Critical Approaches to Continental Philosophy: Intellectual Community, Disciplinary Identity, and the Politics of Inclusion Archived 11 December 2019 at the Wayback Machine.” Parrhesia 30:1–17. doi:10.1007/s10691-011-9167-4. (Discusses critical social theory as a form of self-reflection.)
- Agger, Ben (2012), “Ben Agger”, North American Critical Theory After Postmodernism, Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 128–154, doi:10.1057/9781137262868_7, ISBN 9781349350391
- Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 53
- Rivera Vicencio, E. (2012). “Foucault: His influence over accounting and management research. Building of a map of Foucault’s approach”. International Journal of Critical Accounting. 4 (5/6): 728–756. doi:10.1504/IJCA.2012.051466. Archived from the original on 9 September 2018. Retrieved 4 July 2015.
- “Introduction to Jean Baudrillard, Module on Postmodernity”. www.cla.purdue.edu. Archived from the original on 9 September 2018. Retrieved 16 June 2017.
- Kellner, Douglas (2015). Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 ed.). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Archived from the original on 18 March 2019. Retrieved 16 June 2017.
- Aylesworth, Gary (2015). “Postmodernism”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Archived from the original on 27 September 2018. Retrieved 24 June 2017.
- “Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed : Book Summary”. The Educationist. 9 July 2014. Archived from the original on 28 March 2020. Retrieved 4 June 2020.
- For a history of the emergence of critical theory in the field of education, see Gottesman, Isaac. 2016. The Critical Turn in Education: From Marxist Critique to Postructuralist Feminism to Critical Theories of Race. New York: Routledge.
- “Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed : Book Summary”. The Educationist. 9 July 2014. Archived from the original on 28 March 2020. Retrieved 4 June 2020.
- See, e.g., Kołakowski, Leszek.  1979. Main Currents of Marxism 3. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393329437. ch. 10.
- Jay, Martin (1996). The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–1950. University of California Press. p. 41. ISBN 978-0-520-20423-2. Archived from the original on 28 October 2020. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
- Corradetti, Claudio. “The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory Archived 18 February 2018 at the Wayback Machine.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- “How Critical Theory Came to Be Skeptical of Science”. Areo. 12 February 2020. Archived from the original on 10 June 2020. Retrieved 29 July 2020.
- “Problematizing Global Knowledge.” Theory, Culture & Society 23(2–3). 2006. ISSN 0263-2764.
- Calhoun, Craig. 1995. Critical Social Theory: Culture, History, and the Challenge of Difference. Blackwell. ISBN 1-55786-288-5. — A survey of and introduction to the current state of critical social theory.
- Charmaz, K. 1995. “Between positivism and postmodernism: Implications for methods.” Studies in Symbolic Interaction 17:43–72.
- Conquergood, D. 1991. “Rethinking ethnography: Towards a critical cultural politics.” Communication Monographs 58(2):179–94. doi:10.1080/03637759109376222.
- Corchia, Luca. 2010. La logica dei processi culturali. Jürgen Habermas tra filosofia e sociologia. Genova: Edizioni ECIG. ISBN 978-88-7544-195-1.
- Dahms, Harry, ed. 2008. No Social Science Without Critical Theory, (Current Perspectives in Social Theory 25). Emerald/JAI.
- Gandler, Stefan. 2009. Fragmentos de Frankfurt. Ensayos sobre la Teoría crítica. México: 21st Century Publishers/Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro. ISBN 978-607-03-0070-7.
- Geuss, Raymond. 1981. The Idea of a Critical Theory. Habermas and the Frankfurt School. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-28422-8.
- Honneth, Axel. 2006. La société du mépris. Vers une nouvelle Théorie critique, La Découverte. ISBN 978-2707147721.
- Horkheimer, Max. 1982. Critical Theory Selected Essays. New York: Continuum Publishing.
- Lindlof, T. R., and B. C. Taylor. 2002. Qualitative Communication Research Methods (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
- Morgan, Marcia. 2012. Kierkegaard and Critical Theory. New York: Lexington Books.
- Rolling, James H. 2008. “Secular blasphemy: Utter(ed) transgressions against names and fathers in the postmodern era.” Qualitative Inquiry 14(6):926–48. — An example of critical postmodern work.
- Sim, Stuart, and Borin Van Loon. 2001. Introducing Critical Theory. ISBN 1-84046-264-7. — A short introductory volume with illustrations.
- Thomas, Jim. 1993. Doing Critical Ethnography. London: SAGE. pp. 1–5 & 17–25.
- Tracy, S. J. 2000. “Becoming a character for commerce: Emotion labor, self subordination and discursive construction of identity in a total institution.” Management Communication Quarterly 14(1):90–128. — An example of critical qualitative research.
- Willard, Charles Arthur. 1982. Argumentation and the Social Grounds of Knowledge. University of Alabama Press.
- — 1989. A Theory of Argumentation. University of Alabama Press.
- — 1996. Liberalism and the Problem of Knowledge: A New Rhetoric for Modern Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.